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After many years of working in schools, especially with students identified as having behavioural difficulties, it has become clear that there are no easy answers or magic bullets. Some interventions can seem to work in the short term, but lose their efficacy and the behaviour returns. Sometimes, after multiple and intense behavioural interventions, some students did not improve and for others their behaviour deteriorated. As a result, these students were often prescribed more medication and more restrictive interventions.


After a while, it seemed to make sense to stop looking for answers to the question, “What can we do to fix this student who is misbehaving?” Rather, the question that we started to ask ourselves was, “Why is the student behaving in this way?” 


In 2002, we were introduced to the Attachment-based Developmental Paradigm developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld. His paradigm provides a comprehensive framework for understanding human behaviour that is steeped in neuroscientific findings. The paradigm integrates three key theories of human development: maturation, vulnerability and attachment. When considering a student’s behaviour using these three lenses, it becomes easier to understand the “why” of most challenging behaviours. This understanding then leads to effective and long lasting interventions.


MATURATION: Great strides were being made in the area of neuroscience. The data were showing that the human brain takes a long time to fully develop, well into the mid to late twenties, if all goes well. With that knowledge, it became easier to understand the “immature” behaviour of all students in our schools. Immature brains will make immature decisions and they will make mistakes even if they “know better”. This new information confirmed our decision to adopt a developmental approach to understanding and intervening with students with behavioural challenges.


VULNERABILITY: Research on the effect of trauma and chronic stress on the developing brain and its implication for behaviour was coming to the fore. It helped clarify underlying causes for behavioural difficulties experienced by some children, especially those living in conditions of chronic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences.


ATTACHMENT: The role of attachment, as essential to human development, is taking more prominence in our thinking. Good teachers already knew that if they had a good relationship with their students that it was easier to teach them. What is clearer now, is that some students, because of their histories, have disruptions in their attachment world, which adds to their behavioural difficulties, making it more challenging to guide and instruct them.


These influences confirmed what we had already come to understand, that when students behave in ways that adults find challenging, they are just giving us a message that something is distressing them. We contend that the role of adults is to heed this distress. It is then up to the adults to provide developmentally appropriate, attachment-safe interventions and trauma-responsive interventions to help all students in the school setting, especially those whose behaviour challenges us the most.

In keeping with these principles, we have come to

the following understandings:

  • Student misbehaviour is a form of communication.​

  • Students who live in challenging family circumstances are affected emotionally and neurologically and this often results in “acting out” behaviour.​

  • The more that students “act out” the more they are trying to tell us that something is not working in their life and that they need us to help them.​

  • If we focus on simply changing the behaviour, we miss the opportunity to work and compensate for underlying causes.

  • True behavioural change only happens over time and as a result of growth and development.

  • The best interventions respect the student’s developmental level, protect their vulnerability, honour their emotions and create strong student-adult relationships.

Here are the Guiding Principles that inform the interventions recommended by CEBM: 

  • Students are immature beings who are in the process of development. They cannot act more mature than their current level of development. ​

  • Human maturation is a biological process that must be nurtured, but it cannot be rushed.

  • In order to provide the optimal conditions for maturation, students need to feel safe. ​

  • When students feel safe, their brain can rest. It is only in rest that growth can happen.​

  • Growth requires “softness” which implies an ability to tolerate vulnerability. This can only happen in the safety of an adult relationship.

  • Strong relationships with safe and caring adults provide the natural environment in which students are able to grow, develop and learn.

WEBINAR: What is the Developmental Approach?

CLICK HERE to play recording


Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

November 7, 1995


Bill Watterson, cartoonist, really understands frustation and attachment!

As a result, we no longer promote typical behavioural interventions such as reward systems, tracking systems, time outs, consequences, reflection sheets, and detentions. These interventions, while they sometimes may be effective in the short run, can have unanticipated negative consequences, often interfering with natural development processes and significantly eroding the precious and necessary student-adult relationship.

“When a flower doesn't bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower." 

Alexander den Heijer

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